Transparency Is the Number One Policy for Veja Co-Founder Sébastien Kopp
“Veja’s secret to transparency and sustainability is to go into the field – to know what we’re talking about. Sustainability is not a Powerpoint, it is more the mud of the Amazonian forest, understanding the problems of reality.”
Veja definitely stands out today. One reason for this is that the French brand has managed to make sustainability look cool. Their clean, minimalist sneakers with the discrete but unmistakable V logo has spread from eco-stores to commercial retailers all over the world. This is not an easy thing to do in such a competitive market, especially when following a strict no-marketing policy.
The true magic of Veja lies in the thought and extensive research that goes into their collections of leather and vegan sneakers. They call them environmentally friendly, as the shoes are made locally in Brazil with raw materials sourced from small-scale organic farming and ecological agricultures, without using chemicals and other polluting processes. And the sole, which is something of a signum, is made with wild rubber responsibly retrieved from the Amazonian forest.
Wanting to deep-dive into the Veja universe, we asked co-founder Sébastien Kopp for a guided tour of their thoughts on transparency and sustainability.
What is the story and key motives behind Veja?
– In 2002, my best friend François and I graduated in economics, and we started to work in Washington DC and NYC straight after our degrees. After a few months working in investment banks, we decided that was not the life we wanted. We created an NGO and offered big firms within different industries all around the world to have their CSR policies studied. We travelled together during one year, going into the core of these companies – in the factories, on the field. We went to China, Brazil, India, Bolivia, Vietnam and Australia searching for solutions to offer better working conditions to the workers, reduce pollution and respect the environment. What we saw was that actions did not follow words – that the big companies were talking more than they were acting.
– Then, in 2004, we decided we wanted to make a change in our lives, and create a project that would be based on action, not just big talk. We decided to rethink the creation of a popular product – the sneaker – and chose it because we both love it. On the other hand, it is one of the products in which brands invest most when it comes to advertising, so we figured that if we didn’t advertise, we could create a much better sneaker, and that would respect the environment and the workers. It would be more expensive to make, but by not advertising we could sell it at the same price.
– We wanted to trace and to change every step of the production, from the raw materials to the distribution, and create a positive economy. We went to Brazil, a country we both already loved, and started to meet agroecological cotton producers, wild rubber tappers in the Amazonian forest, and so on. Then the Veja project was born.
“To meet the people that are doing your clothes or shoes, to visit the factories, to go on the organic cotton fields – those are the most inspiring moment for us.”
What are the things you are most proud to have achieved as a brand from an environmental and ethical perspective?
– After 13 years of Veja, we are very proud of the team we have built. Seeing individuals elevate themselves day after day, year after year, is one of the most beautiful things in this project. We are also proud to respect our word, and to be one of the most transparent brands in the world. We are proud to have started with nothing – no investors – and to now lead a 100 people team, trying to offer them the company we would have dreamt to work for. We are also proud to be buying 104 tons of organic and fair-trade cotton this year.
What are the key learnings on sustainability and responsible production that you wish other brands knew and operated by?
– Veja’s secret to transparency and sustainability is to go into the field – to know what we’re talking about. Sustainability is not a Powerpoint, it is more the mud of the Amazonian forest, understanding the problems of reality. Today, the young generation believes you can set up a project or brand sitting behind a computer. We think this is a big mistake. To meet the people that are doing your clothes or shoes, to visit the factories, to go on the organic cotton fields – those are the most inspiring moment for us. It keeps you in reality, and we think that is what our world needs: less talk, less words, more reality. We don’t tell others to change, but put all our energy towards changing ourselves. We prefer to tell them to ‘face reality’.
Running the brand with an eco-friendly approach and offering a wide range of vegan shoes – why have you chosen to also work with leather, and how do you source it?
– We don’t choose one side or one vision of ecology, we embrace them all and follow every path. This is why we use B-Mesh (recycled plastic bottle technical fabric), ‘nubuck’ (fake leather made in Germany), organic and fair-trade cotton canvas, jute, and so on. Leather is a side product from the meat industry, and our original vision was: ‘let’s change the leather’. So we learned about vegetable tanned leather, learned the impact the leather has on the environment, learned how to trace it. We came up with a leather that is much more ecological than the others used in the fashion industry today.
– On the other side, vegan fabric is not the ultimate solution. You have to go back to the production chain to understand it. A lot of vegan products are plastic or petrol based. For us, that is equal or even worse than leather from an ecological point of view. We have been making research on this for five years now, and found part of the solution: a vegan leather that is more ecological, which will come out in 2019.
“Since the beginning of Veja, in 2004, we’ve bought more than 200 tons of wild rubber from the seringueiros, and helped to preserve 120 000 hectares of Amazonian forest.”
What is the genius of ‘wild rubber’, and why is it better than other kinds?
– Wild rubber is used in the sole of every Veja sneaker. We buy rubber from the Amazon forest, directly from rubber tapper communities, paying a fair price. The Amazon is the only place on Earth where rubber trees grow wild. In the Brazilian state of Acre, the seringueiros, rubber tappers, harvest the rubber used in Veja’s soles. It helps to fight deforestation as the seringueiros prefer to work for us, rather than cutting the trees to raise cattle. Since the beginning of Veja, in 2004, we’ve bought more than 200 tons of wild rubber from the seringueiros, and helped to preserve 120 000 hectares of Amazonian forest.
What are your sustainable goals for the foreseeable future?
– We have a lot on the table, numerous new projects coming up. But we never talk of what is not out on the market – it’s part of our philosophy in order to stick to reality.
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